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Victoria Wilson’s Intimate Look at a Legend “A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940” | by Anne Brodie

A companion piece to TIFF Cinematheque’s Retrospective Ball of Fire: the Films of Barbara Stanwyck.

Ruby Stevens, born in New York in 1907, had a tough life, but she made something of herself.  A tough childhood and itinerant adolescence taught her lessons that served her later in Hollywood, where she reinvented herself as Barbara Stanwyck, one of the greatest film actresses of all time. TIFF Cinematheque’s retrospective paying tribute to Stanwyck, Ball of Fire: the Films of Barbara Stanwyck runs February 7 – April 4th, so what better time to speak with Victoria Wilson, author, editor and publisher, who has written the first major Stanwyck biography.  Wilson describes Stanwyck as “someone slightly odd, compelling, not beautiful but sexy, intelligent, sometimes off-putting in her off-centeredness – but always interesting on screen”. 

Ms. Wilson, the great acting coach and actress Stella Adler was your stepmother. Did she spark your interest in the art of acting and actors?

Yes, maybe through Stella.  My education was watching those old movies on the late night shows. So many of them!

I am so happy to speak with you about Barbara Stanwyck, one of my favourites. Why has there been no major comprehensive work on her before?

There have been other bios but they weren’t interesting.

Stanwyck’s life began like many other aspiring young actresses in the 20’s – poverty, struggle, finally Hollywood.  What made her succeed?

She was Steel True.  That’s from a Robert Louis Stevenson poem.

TRUSTY, dusky, vivid, true,
With eyes of gold and bramble-dew,
Steel-true and blade-straight,
The great artificer
Made my mate.         

Honour, anger, valour, fire;
A love that life could never tire,
Death quench or evil stir,

Her husband Robert Taylor said that about her.  I read the poem and thought “There is my title!”  It’s who she was; her entire childhood was the making and the becoming this person.  By the time she was four, her mother had died and her father had run off.  Her three older sisters raised her. She was passed around from house to house in her neighbourhood so no one was really there.

She made a brilliant career where so many failed. 

She was steel true.  Poverty made her steel true. She wanted to get out of the poverty and through her sister who was an actress, she was introduced to show people.  Her sister brought her on tour when she was working the John Cort theatre circuit.  She’d bring little Ruby Stevens, so show business began to be seen by her as an emotional family. 

So the theatre was her comfort zone?

The acting world was family.  She would stand in the wings and watch these performers come offstage and become people. At the same time, as a young girl she had a fantasy that she had really other parents who were very rich and they would find her one day. 

Stanwyck made 88 films and apparently had no enemies. Is that true?

A few people didn’t want to talk about her but mostly everyone loved her.  I’d interview people and wanted to hear what they could tell me about her.  I told them I didn’t want them to use the word “professional”.  She was, but she was obsessed.  It was her family and she wanted to do what was expected of her and to be the best and deliver her end of the bargain.  She would show up know everyone’s lines and when Mitchell Leisen was directing her in Remember the Night, he told her to leave for the day because they didn’t need her for any more scenes.  Three hours later, he realised he needed to shoot her again.  Someone went to her dressing room and she was still there, in costume, waiting.  She said “I knew you’d need me”. People said they did their best because she was so good.  She raised everyone’s level and rarely screwed up her lines. They wouldn’t have to reshoot her over and over.

Stanwyck wasn’t conventionally beautiful like some of her competitors in Hollywood. Did that bother her?

I realised fairly soon that she wasn’t interested in her looks.  She would say she had a face that sank a thousand ships in her typical standard modest way. From the get-go.  Frank Capra was making a test and she was made up to be very glamourous. Capra said she was too pretty and told them to get rid of the makeup.  Her feeling was that you take care of your job, and the clothes were designed, and the makeup by people who did that and that you do what you have to do. She would do what she had to do, but she didn’t have that kind of vanity.

She was married twice, once to Taylor, a matinee idol, and I read she had a long term affair with Robert Wagner, who was half her age.  Was there ever a scandal?

In her work she was totally respectable, but in doing this project, I knew I only wanted to reveal the truth.  My hunch is she probably f***ed a lot of people, but I don’t know. She spent a lot of energy not getting her name in print. Helen Ferguson was her press agent for a thousand years and then Larry Kleno. Their job was to keep her name out of the press.  She was a bashful woman and had to be cajoled into getting awards, she just wasn’t comfortable. It’s interesting that what comes across on the screen is so peculiar.  Odd at times.

Stanwyck was a feminist but politically she was an ardent right winger. How did that gel?

Let’s put it this way, she hated unions, was forced to join SAG, she hated Roosevelt and taxes and didn’t like that America was taken off the gold standard.  She came out of a certain definition of these terms in their own time; she came out of a certain very old republicanism.

Stanwyck managed to have two incredibly successful, separate careers. But why did she leave film?

She didn’t leave film, film left her. But she had wanted to get into television for years and her career in television lasted twenty years. 

Even so, Stanwyck isn’t much recognised today and never won an acting Oscar.

Moss Hart told her “You’ll never win an Oscar. You make it look too easy”. I don’t think that’s it, she wasn’t under contract to one studio to build her up. They didn’t have that investment. If you look at Bette Davis or Katharine Hepburn, they had stylised forms of acting. Today they seem more stylised than they might have then.  But Stanwyck was the most natural of actors and her acting hasn’t aged. 

Your book is the first volume, which ends in 1940.  Are you doing more?

Oh yeah, I’m already up to 1949.  I didn’t start out to do this but it is a great cultural history of the time, covering politics as well. There is much more in Volume 2.  Stanwyck was so much more than a movie star.

Which of Stanwyck’s films do you like best?

I would say there are two films I love, The Woman in Red, The Lady Gambles with Joel McCrae and Remember the Night.

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